USWNT prepares to face Sam Kerr’s star-studded Australia in front of a record crowd in Sydney
Over 35,000 fans will be on hand at Sydney’s Stadium Australia, the home of the 2000 Summer Olympics, as the Americans start a two-game set with the Matildas.
The U.S. women’s soccer team’s new era is about to shift into high gear.
This weekend brings the first game for the Americans since their post-Olympic tour, which means it’s the first time manager Vlatko Andonovski has assembled a full roster of players whom he wants to measure for the 2023 World Cup and beyond. And as measuring sticks go, this one’s as good as it gets.
Andonovski has taken the U.S. team to Australia, which, in addition to having an elite team, is also the host of the next World Cup. It’s the Americans’ first trip Down Under in 21 years, and a relatively rare foray abroad for a team that plays most of its games at home.
Over 35,000 fans will be on hand at Sydney’s Stadium Australia, the home of the 2000 Summer Olympics, for the opener of the U.S. team’s two-game tour. Kickoff is about 11 p.m. Friday Eastern time (3 p.m. Saturday local time) on FS2. The teams will meet again Tuesday in Newcastle, about a two-hour bus ride up Australia’s southeastern coast, at 4 a.m. Eastern (8 p.m. local time) on ESPN.
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“It is important that we travel outside of the country, that we experience a little bit of adversity, that we experience an environment where the opponents have that support,” Andonovski said on a Zoom call from Sydney that was Wednesday night for U.S. media and Thursday lunchtime for him.
The two teams know each other very well. This will be their 33rd all-time meeting, and their third of this calendar year after two at the Olympics: a scoreless tie in the group stage and a 4-3 U.S. win in the bronze medal game.
Fifteen of the 24 players on the Matildas’ roster for this series were on their Olympic team, and 14 of the 24 have played in the United States. (It would be 16 and 15 out of 25 if stalwart defender Alanna Kennedy hadn’t recently been ruled out due to injury.)
And on the sideline, manager Tony Gustavsson was Jill Ellis’ top assistant for the U.S.’ back-to-back World Cup wins in 2015 and 2019.
Australia’s top player is Sam Kerr, a global superstar for the Matildas and English club Chelsea, the reigning FA Women’s Super League champion and UEFA Champions League runner-up. Kerr previously spent seven years in the NWSL across three clubs, scoring a (still) league record 77 goals and winning the Golden Boot three times.
Kerr made a big-money move across the Atlantic at the start of 2020, and has hit the stratosphere since then. Though she doesn’t uncork her trademark backflip goal celebration as often as she used to, she has scored a whopping 42 times in 57 games for Chelsea.
With the national team, she has an Australian record 49 goals in 102 games.
“Sam Kerr is definitely one of the best strikers in the world,” Andonovski said. “And that’s been the case for years now. I wish I could say, ‘If we do this, we’re going to stop Sam Kerr,’ but it just doesn’t work like that.”
Kerr has also hit the global soccer celebrity pages, as she is dating U.S. and Houston Dash midfielder Kristie Mewis. They’ve been open about it on Instagram since this summer’s Olympics.
‘The next level’ for the U.S.
But when kickoff comes, U.S. fans’ focus will turn to the raft of players who are new to the national team. Six of the 23 players whom Andonovski called up have zero caps. Jane Campbell is the most experienced of the squad’s three goalkeepers, having been part of many national team camps, but she has played in just seven international games.
“It is just kind of a cool feeling that we’re going into the next step, the next level of this national team,” said midfielder Lindsey Horan, the inheritor of the No. 10 jersey from Carli Lloyd. It’s the first time anyone other than Lloyd has worn soccer’s most famous number for the U.S. women since Nov. 8, 2008.
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Horan is one of the experienced players on the squad, and one of its stars. But the 27-year-old is still getting used to being one of the — well, let’s just say she paused before saying “older,” then settled on “more veteran players.”
A few minutes later, Horan made a classic veteran move: gifting some trash talk to a host country with its own fine track record of that.
“It’s a cool feeling when you’re able to score” in a road game, she said, “kind of do something well, and kind of shut up their fans.”
Veteran centerback Abby Dahlkemper, who just became the first player signed by NWSL expansion team San Diego Wave FC, said “it’s really refreshing seeing so many players have such great years in the league and getting rewarded for that, and I think the future is very bright.”
One of the newcomers was a late addition to the roster, Gotham FC outside back Imani Dorsey. Andonovski said she was brought in because she “has done well in the league — she’s proved that she’s definitely someone who deserves a look, or at the very least deserves to experience this environment.”
Andonovski also noted that Emily Fox, the projected heir to Crystal Dunn as the starting left back, “is not 100% ready” to play right now.
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The other cap-less players are goalkeepers Bella Bixby and Casey Murphy; midfielder Ashley Sanchez; and forwards Bethany Balcer and Morgan Weaver.
When Andonovski spoke, his team hadn’t been able to get on the field all that much yet, just a walk-through and one light training session. The first real practice was to come soon after his call.
But there was time for some fun and sightseeing, even amid Australia’s tight COVID-19 protocols. The team went to the Sydney Zoo, where there was time to meet some koalas and kangaroos — which of course became a hit social media video.
And in addition to Thursday being Thanksgiving, it was also defender Emily Sonnett’s birthday. So there was to be turkey for dinner and cake for dessert, served with a big side order of adventure.